'Wrestler' pins Lido's Golden Lion

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Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," which set the Venice Lido abuzz after its world premiere Friday, gave the 65th Venice Film Festival the strong finish it needed when it won the festival's top prize a day later.

Mickey Rourke was considered by many a favorite for the festival's best actor prize for his interpretation of an aging pro wrestler struggling to come to terms with the end of his career. The film, which may have sealed Rourke's acting comeback, had been a dark horse for the overall Golden Lion prize.

"Darren Aronofsky came here a couple of years ago and fell on his ass," Rourke told a packed Sala Grande crowd after the award was announced, referring to Aronofsky's "The Fountain," which flopped in Venice in 2006. "I'm glad he had the balls to come back. I don't think he wanted to come back, but I told him, 'You have to come back,' and he did."

Rourke said the film was the best he's ever made, and jury president Wim Wenders called Rourke's performance "heartbreaking" and said he regretted that festival rules prohibited Rourke from getting the best actor prize after the film already won the Golden Lion.

The ending ceremony capped an up-and-down festival. The event started strongly Aug. 27 with the screening of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Burn After Reading," which brought stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney to the Lido. But the domestic press soon began criticizing the festival for its relative lack of strong films and high-profile stars. The final reviews were more positive, though, with widespread praise for the selection of "Wrestler."

Despite a strong end, questions remain about its role in the future — especially in regard to the Toronto International Film Festival, which got under way Thursday and which shares the late summer spotlight with Venice. Fifth-year Venice artistic director Marco Mueller said he was confident that without the WGA strike that delayed many projects this year, and with the investments in infrastructure Venice is making, the fest will be as strong as ever in 2009.

The journalists, sales agents and general public who empty their piggy-banks to spend time on the terrifyingly over-priced Lido come here expecting to be enthralled by a "showcase of cinematic art" — the festival's real title, and its mission. So when an off-year rolls around and quality turns scarce, there is much discontent.

Despite a few great titles, like Hayao Miyazaki's magical work of animation "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," there was an overall feeling of confusion in the competition, as quiet arty films and experimental work more suitable to festivals like Rotterdam unspooled beside the noisy Americans, and half the better films inexplicably popped up in Horizons and out of competition. The festival really only sprang to life at the end, when Mueller brought out his big guns from the U.S.

Among Saturday's other prizes, Russia's Aleksey German Jr. won Venice's Silver Lion, the best director award, for "Paper Soldier," a Russian-made drama set in the period just after the birth of the Soviet space program.

Italy's Silvio Orlando won the best actor award for his role as a father dealing with a troublesome daughter in Pupi Avati's "Giovanna's Father," while French actress Dominique Blanc won the best actress honor for her portrayal of a jealous girlfriend in Pierre Trividic and Patrick Mario Bernard's "The Other One."

Jennifer Lawrence, the 18-year-old actress who played the younger version of Charlize Theron's character in Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plain," won the Mastroianni prize for young performers. Uberto Pasolini, nominated for an Oscar 10 years ago when he produced "The Full Monty," won the Venice Days sidebar for auteur films with his directorial debut "Machan," about a faux Sri Lanka national handball team.

Deborah Young in Venice contributed to this report.
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